Vascular organ chips for drug screening

July 6, 2017

New enhancements in the field of organs-on-chips incorporate the development of blood vessels.

The continued failure of animal experiments to produce effective drugs and treatments for human conditions has led to the development of “organs-on-chips.” The chips utilize the latest bioengineering techniques combined with living human cells, resulting in microdevices that can reproduce the workings of human organs.


Organs-on-chips are quickly revolutionizing biomedical research with their ability to enhance the study of human diseases by mimicking the intricate function of whole complex organs and specialized disease models.

Now a team of researchers at University of California Irvine (UCI) has developed organs-on-chips with new features that boosts their effectiveness for screening drugs.

Led by Christopher C.W. Hughes, a professor of biochemistry and microbiology at UCI, the research team has successfully created organs-on-chips containing blood vessels, bringing them closer to simulating a true living system.


A vascularized microtumor. Vessels are stained in red 
and tumor cells in green. Photo credit: Hughes Lab

 Says Dr. Hughes: "This is truly a unique platform - we have recreated in a dish the key element common to all tissues, which is that they depend on blood vessels for their survival. This feature is missing in all previously described in vitro organ cultures." 

The micro-chips are set up on a 96-well plate, with each well functioning much like a single test tube. This makes them usable for large-scale drug screening.

A blood substitute is pumped through the vascular network, transporting nutrients to various tissues like the heart, brain and lung.


Tests run in the Hughes labs demonstrated that these miniature tissues can reproduce the human response to drugs in a way that is superior to prior model systems.

Professor Hughes and his team incorporated tissues from human colon cancers into the system to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-cancer drugs.

When they exposed the tissue network to existing anti-cancer FDA-approved drugs, they were able to pinpoint the precise site of action, whether it was the tumor cells, the innervating blood vessels, or both.

Professor Hughes has good reason to be enthusiastic about the development of organs-on-chips. He is also the author of the 2004 article “Of Mice and Not Men” which discussed the significant differences between the biology of mice and humans.


In his article he wrote: “As therapies for human diseases become ever more sophisticated and specifically targeted, it becomes increasingly important to understand the potential limitations of extrapolating data from mice to humans. The literature is littered with examples of therapies that work well in mice but fail to provide similar efficacy in humans.”

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